By Frank Thadeusz
In terms of zoology, the year 2007 was deceptive. Berlin Zoo's baby polar bear Knut became the darling of Germany and the world -- and gave the general public the impression that one of the most dangerous and powerful predators on earth is in fact a cuddly creature with a cute little button nose and soft, fluffy ears.
But 2008 is fast proving to be a year of cold reality as far as bears are concerned. In early January, two pregnant polar bears at Nuremberg Zoo in Bavaria showed the public just how merciless nature really is -- and delivered a dose of bad PR to the polar bear cause.
One of the females, Vera, staggered through the enclosure with her cub, still blind after birth, in her mouth, dropping it on the stone surface several times. Zoo personnel removed the cub after concluding that the bear was incapable of raising her own young. A short time earlier another female, Vilma, attacked her twin cubs and promptly ate them.
But for biologists the events in Nuremberg are not surprising. "Attempts to breed polar bears in zoos fail in 70 to 80 percent of cases," says Frank Albrecht, an animal conservation expert.
These failures are documented by the international polar bear breeding records -- a sort of Arctic stud book -- maintained by the zoo in the northern German city of Rostock. The damning records are kept tightly under wraps -- and for good reason, Albrecht believes. If the records were more accessible, "people would think that there was something a bit fishy about the whole business," he says.
The heart-warming tale of little bottle-fed Knut at Berlin Zoo created an all-too-convincing illusion of a cozy zoo world -- and helped fill the zoo's coffers.
But despite public perception, polar bears in zoos endure a wretched existence. "Keeping polar bears in enclosures is as unnatural for the species as locking a child in a tiny room for the rest of his life," says Rüdiger Schmiedel, director of the German Bear Foundation.
Given the conditions of captivity, Vilma's gruesome attack on her own offspring is not surprising. In their natural environment, polar bears, which are typically loners, rarely encounter other adult members of their species.
In a zoo, on the other hand, the animals are intensively exposed to the smells of their fellow bears in neighboring enclosures. This orgy of scent is extremely stressful for the bears, especially the females, and usually has devastating consequences for their upcoming motherhood. "Any minor disturbance can lead to failure," says Albrecht.
After a series of incidents that were frustrating for staff and horrifying for visitors, zoos in the German cities of Leipzig, Erfurt, Halle, Schwerin, Duisburg and Frankfurt abandoned any plans to increase their polar bear inventories through internal breeding programs.
The animal conservationist Schmiedel is outraged over the spur-of-the-moment decision by Nuremberg Zoo management to bottle-feed the baby bear it had evacuated from the enclosure. "They should have let the mother decide whether to raise its offspring," he says. The bear, who has been provisionally named Snowflake by zoo staff ahead of her official name being chosen in a competition, finally opened her eyes Tuesday, zoo staff reported.
Many observers fear the worst when they see people intervening in the animal world once again, just as they did in the case of Knut. "What use is a second psychopath?" says Peter Arras, a zoo biologist from the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, in a reference to Knut and his behavioral problems.
Critics say that while Knut, who is famously fond of croissants, may be developing well physically, he could already be facing other problems. The bear, who recently weighed in at 120 kilograms (265 pounds), is already catching up on the stature of his godfather, Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who accompanied the bear on his first public appearance.
But zookeepers are noticing that the sometimes desperate-seeming animal is increasingly trotting sadly around his enclosure, nervously shaking his head. Knut's days as convenient material for cheap political statements seem to be over.
Animal conservationists are sharply critical of a poorly concealed double standard. Gabriel, for instance, bemoans the adverse effects of climate change on the polar bear, and yet he does nothing to stop the widespread hunting of the animals -- something which is far more threatening to the future of the species than warmer temperatures. A list published by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation documents just how many polar bear trophies, such as tanned hides, claws and heads, are imported to Germany from Canada, Greenland and the United States without any restrictions.
Of course, the tabloid press prefers to ignore the sad realities of zoo life, preferring to fantasize about Berlin's hyperactive problem child one day breeding with Nuremberg's young female. But according to expert Arras, the chances of the furry celebrity -- who is, after all, fixated on humans -- being able to successfully breed with his Bavarian counterpart are slim. "I can guarantee that Knut wouldn't know what to do with a female," he says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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